Verbal Abuse In The Workplace

by | Jun 22, 2020 | Work & Career | 0 comments

Gbenga Rufai, June 2020

This is one type of abuse I have both experienced and witnessed in the workplace in the course of my career. Though not often spoken about, in some unfortunate instances, it has become part of the organizations culture. In fact some managers wear it like a badge of honour and have a reputation of being the abuser in chief of their team. VERBAL ABUSE is its name and I once had a line manager whose area of core competence and unique specialty was verbally abusing subordinates.

I have watched managers totally decimate the last strand of esteem an employee has through the words of their mouths. Some even go ahead with threats of termination of employment etc.  I simply can’t phantom why certain individuals feel that the best way of asserting their authority is through consistent verbal battering (yelling, cursing etc) of subordinates.

Subordinate makes an error and the superior sees it as an automatic license to curse him to high heavens. I have heard such manager’s give excuses such as ‘the verbal abuses will bring the best out of him/her’. There are several known and validated means of bringing the best out of people and I can tell you that verbal abuse has never being one of them.

So how do I know I am being verbally abused? Here are a few pointers. Once you notice that your work and productivity is clearly being affected by the perpetrators comments, you need to take a closer look. In my personal experience, apart from the quality of my work and self-esteem (unknown to me) consistently tanking, I also began to dread going to work not for any reason other than encountering another round of abuse. In most cases, the abuser is usually in a position of authority.

This is not to not to encourage bad behavior or ineptitude from subordinates but, take it from me when I say verbal abuse does more harm than good not only on the employees but also on the productivity of the entire organization. No matter the reason alluded for carrying it out, it does not justify it by any stretch. 

Let’s take a look at some of the actions you could take when dealing with verbal abuse in the workplace. There is no magic bullet but hopefully, you would find some of these suggestions useful.

Do not empower the abuser: But how? I will tell you. You see, managers who take pleasure in verbally abusing subordinates look out for verbal cues of displeasure from you. You smile about it, you apologize to them (despite when they are clearly at fault), you always go to throw banters with them, you laugh when they do it to others etc are all ways by which you empower them. Like my peeps in south-west Nigeria would say, ‘what sort of play does a dog have with a tiger?

Communicate your displeasure: But excuse me sir, this person is older than me in age and rank. Relax, there are ways to do it. You could do it tacitly by keeping a straight face afterwards and being strictly professional all through subsequent interactions. Most verbal abusers can’t stand a ‘cold shoulder’, that way, you are sending a message. Alternatively, you can walk up to the person privately and tell him or her that you do not appreciate being yelled at. You might get shouted at again but you have dropped something for that superior to think about.

Escalate: If you are blessed to have another superior who you can confide in please do. I wasn’t that lucky as both at the time had the same DNA. Anyways, speaking with another superior might help you get transferred away from that boss or get good counsel on what to do. Registering it with someone in HR is also another good idea. It might not solve it fully but it would have been documented should things get out of control.

Create an Exit Plan: Once you notice a pattern either as a victim yourself or with others, it’s time to start mapping how to leave. Very early on in my career this line manager would take delight in coming to my work space and tearing me down verbally right in front of clients and subordinates. This was followed by threats of recommending my dismissal to HR and all sorts. I never checked but I was absolutely sure my blood pressure must have been hitting the roofs during that phase. Unknown to me, something was gradually happening in my sub-conscious, my self-esteem was tanking, I stopped believing in my abilities, made more errors than ever and my productivity dropped. Trust me, it’s not worth it.

Be an A Player: I always encourage employees to as much as they can deliver excellence on their jobs. Only an irrational mind argues with excellent results. When push comes to shove, let your work do a lot of talking for you. You owe it to yourself to be excellent at what you do, you never can tell, it might be what lands you the next better gig.

Exit: Last trick from me is to simply vote with your feet. What if I leave and I don’t enjoy the new place? Someone would ask. My answer, what if you get fired tomorrow in the current place? What if the company folds up? Many don’t value their emotional sanity but having it is priceless. Don’t be reckless or emotional about your exit, plan it but be fast and deliberate about it. The truth is there are several organizations looking for smart professionals, you only need to identify the right one. 

One more thing…look before you leap: First things first, check for signs of abuse in an environment before committing to it. After years of experience in my field, I can smell an atmosphere of abuse almost immediately I spend few minutes at the front lobby of an organization or in my interactions during a visit or interview. From how junior employees are treated, to how I am handled during the interview and to as little as the tone of their conversation, I can smell it. Take this as a bonus, anytime you go for an interview and the interviewer takes special effort to talk down your qualifications and accomplishments, you might want to take a second look again.


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